HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Hundreds of athletes had their names called to compete in a track and field meet at Davenport University on Friday, April 28.
But out of all the competitors, Hope College athlete Derik Smith stood out, competing with a prosthetic on his right leg.
“They said that, ‘We need to amputate the leg.’ But that age — I was probably 8 years old — I just really didn’t want to lose my leg at the time,” recalled the Sophomore.
Long before he suited up for Hope College track, Smith was an 8-year-old kid faced with a life-altering decision on whether or not to amputate his leg due to cancer.
“I was never going to be able to play, because every time it would heal I would break back again,” Smith explained. “(I’d) be back in crutches, in the wheelchair, in the cast. So really the only thing that was going on in my head was, ‘I just want to play sports.’”
With a decision that big, came regret.
“Two weeks after the amputation I went camping with my grandma, and I just realized that I thought I made the wrong decision, that it just wasn’t meant for me. So I called my mom, and I was like, ‘Mom, I really needed my leg back.’ And it was very emotional. But my mom told me that this was meant to be. … And I would never have gotten to this point without being amputated.”
Derrick got a prosthetic leg and put it to use at Edwardsburg High School as a dual sport athlete in track and football.
Smith had several D1 offers to compete in track, but he wanted to play football too. Not as many coaches were willing to get him on the gridiron, but it didn’t keep Peter Stuursma away.
“Coach Mike Rickets, longtime defense coordinator, dear friend of the program walked into my office and he said, ‘Hey, I want you to look at this young man from Edwardsburg, defensive end,’” recalled Stuursma. “So we put the film in, watched him, and (I) said, ‘He does a pretty good job, big kid.’ He said, ‘What if I told you he’s got a prosthetic leg?’ And I said, ‘Let’s get him down here.’”
That didn’t mean he had a spot on the team. The roster was full, but Smith wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
“I kept emailing, bugging him like, ‘Please. I’ll do anything. I’ll play any position.’ So then fall camp started on Monday and I got an email from (Stuursma) on Thursday before fall camp saying, ‘Hey, there’s one spot open. It’s on offensive line though, I know you never played it but that’s the only position we have open, and that’s the way you’re going to play at Hope College.’”
Despite never taking a snap on the offensive line, he leapt at the opportunity.
“He was so excited,” Stuursma said. “To see him from that point to where he is now has been really a cool journey to watch and to be a part of.”
It’s a journey that’s been recognized, as Smith was awarded the Karen Page Courage Award, a prize given to an inspirational member of the Hope athletic community.
When Smith first amputated his leg, he felt regret, but now he learned losing a part of his physical body only made his spirit stronger.
“I can’t say who I was going to be if I didn’t have the cancer. For all we know I could have been a cocky guy that just walked around and didn’t care about anybody. I honestly do think that losing a leg was meant to happen, that I turned out to be a better person than I think I might have turned out to be,” he said.
Smith hopes to compete in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, and considering the challenges he’s faced in his life, being a Paralympian is just another hurdle he believes he can clear.
“I just dare anyone to bet against Derik Smith,” challenged Stuursma. “I just dare you. Because he’s going to find a way to beat you. He’s going to find a way to compete, he’s going to find a way to work.”